How to Protect Your Work

Writing plays isn’t known for paying the bills. I’d say about 99% of self-proclaimed playwrights have a day job.
Don’t fact-check me.

I include myself in this category of part-time playwrights. That being said, my day job is pretty sweet. I build websites for a 100% remote Digital Marketing Agency. While I consider this perk amazing, it certainly has the potential to be alienating. Luckily, once a year, my company holds an event where it flies every one of its employees out to a location for a three-day conference. They put you up in a beautiful hotel, pay for your meals, plan fun activities, the whole deal. This year, they decided to host said event in San Diego.

Of course, as a life-long East-coaster, the prospect of flying out west excited me. And my girlfriend and I were watching a lot of reality TV, featuring beautiful landscapes and exotic locations. It was time for a vacation.

We decided to travel down the coast of California. We’d start at San Francisco, make a detour out to Yosemite, drive down to Monterey, then travel down Route 1 through Big Sur and Los Angeles to arrive at San Diego in time for the conference. Besides some writing for the site, I was excited to spend some time away from responsibility and enjoy ourselves on our travels.

Our trip started out well enough. We spent three lovely days in San Francisco before picking up our rental car to Yosemite. Keep in mind how nervous I was to drive—I haven’t owned or driven a car since moving to New York, nearly four years ago. Even when I was a practiced driver, I made it a point never to drive in the city and considered myself somewhat of an anxious motorist.

But we were doing it. We were on our way. I escaped the city without a hitch and found myself quickly getting back into the rhythms of the road.

But Yosemite was four hours from San Francisco and we hadn’t eaten yet that day. We pulled into a Wendy’s parking lot in Manteca to pick up some greasy burgers before continuing on our journey. After about twenty minutes, my girlfriend and I stepped outside to find this:

Thanks, Manteca.

Those black pieces on the ground are glass from the window above. Our car was broken into and our backpacks were stolen. In broad daylight. In a suburb two hours outside San Francisco. With all of our electronics inside… including our laptops.

This is why I missed my post last week. Sorry about that.

There was nowhere to hide the backpacks. The trunk had an open window and the bags were too large to slip beneath the seats. We could have brought the bags into the Wendy’s with us, but the backpacks were heavy, and we’d look like a couple of weirdos bringing that bulk just for a few minutes at a fast food joint. It was a textbook case of “wrong place, wrong time.”

It’s hard to keep perspective about random acts like this. On one end of the spectrum are anxiety and paranoia—always on the alert for the worst possible scenario. On the other end is arrogance—the feeling of invincibility to life’s random cruelty. Our brains can easily flit between one or the other. I’m going to introduce you to some safety measures to protect your work as a playwright, so you may ease your inner-paranoid and protect yourself at your most arrogant.

Back It Up

During the development of Toy Story 2 in 1998, Oren Jacob noticed some important files missing on his computer. After looking further into it, he discovered a horrifying reality—the months of hard work on the computer animation had been deleted by an accidental command. It was essentially the entirety of the movie from the start of development—lost to the void. Luckily, the film’s Supervising Technical Director, Galyn Susman, had been on maternity leave and took a backup of her files to work on while away. Without’s Susman’s backup, the entirety of the film would have had to have been scrapped and production started over. Only a week of work had been lost.

Let this be a lesson on the importance of backing up your files. The absolute best time to build back up files into your process is before you need it. Let it curb the arrogant end of the brain.

I was able to retrieve every last one of my plays after my laptop was stolen. I store all my Final Draft files in a folder on my desktop, which is saved to my iCloud Drive. Every save is pushed to the cloud automatically. I recommend this approach if you’re a Mac user, even if you have to pay $1 a month for the basic iCloud Drive plan. There are also methods to achieve the same result when backing up to Google Drive or Dropbox. Whatever your preferred cloud service is, use it, and make sure it syncs automatically. Manual syncing requires willpower, which we want to effectively remove from the equation. The more automated your process of backing up files is, the better.

On that same note, I recommend you purchase a copy of Final Draft to write your plays. Besides being the industry standard and hosting the best selection of features, it also includes an autosave feature. By default, every five minutes your work will be automatically saved. If your playwriting software includes this feature, activate it immediately.

Know Your Rights

United States copyright law states that your work is automatically copyrighted when “fixed in a tangible form.” This means if you write your play down, it’s yours. Your copyright will generally last until you die and then an additional seventy years. But if you have the time and means, I suggest you still register your work with the US Copyright department. Doing so will have your copyright as a matter of public record, with a certificate of proof to boot. I recommend taking this approach prior to showing your work to the public. As I’ve said, you won’t need this protection until you do, and then you’ll be glad you have it. There are ill-intentioned people in the world and artists are thieves by nature. Protect yourself and your natural right to your work.

You can submit your copyright via mail or through the US Copyright department’s Electronic Copyright Office (eCO). Fees for copyrighting can be found here and a comprehensive copyright tutorial can be found here.

Collaboration Protection

I recommend joining The Dramatists Guild for qualifying playwrights. They have a variety of promotional and career services and offer protection benefits of your work, including business advice and review of contracts. The membership fees are also as reasonable as they come, so I recommend doing a little research and signing up if you’re able. Their advice may prove to be invaluable when you begin collaborating with others and contracts become a necessary part of mounting your work.

And while I’m still just starting my journey as a playwright, those of a higher caliber may want to consult with an entertainment lawyer if The Dramatist Guild’s services prove to be inadequate at a point.

A final note on collaboration protection: be careful of what you’re trying to protect. A play is a strange chimera of an artistic work unto itself and a roadmap for someone else’s artistic work. My advice is to not fret too much about another production’s interpretation of the work if you’ve already had one or two productions of the play under your belt. It’s a tricky balancing act, but mountings of your play will be out of your control to an extent. Try to let go and not be like the estate of Edward Albee—presiding over every production of his work with an iron fist. The Death of the Author (playwright) can be a wonderful thing. But that’s a topic for another time.

The best time to protect yourself is now. You tell yourself you don’t need to, that it will never happen to you, but my experience in California proved that it was just my inner Arrogant talking. Follow these systems to protect yourself just once for long-term benefits.

I’ll talk to you next week. Mean it this time.

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